While seeing an endangered sea turtle or whooping crane in the wild can be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, most endangered species used to be common. You’re probably familiar with a few. But their populations fell to such low numbers—usually due to a combination of factors including overhunting, overcollecting, habitat destruction, toxic contaminants and emerging diseases—that they are in imminent danger of extinction.
“Aquariums and zoos are among the only places where you can see species that are thought to be extinct in the wild,” says Tim Binder, Shedd’s vice president of collection planning. “That includes a small Mexican fish, the butterfly goodeid, in our Rivers gallery.
“But through our conservation work, we are improving the chances for many endangered species, and those animals that you see at Shedd are ambassadors for their counterparts in the wild.”
One of them is green sea turtle Nickel, the star of the Caribbean Reef exhibit. Her injury from a motorboat propeller nearly doomed her—and guaranteed she would never return to the ocean. “Providing a home for Nickel allows us to connect our guests with the threats facing the seven species of sea turtles, all of which are endangered,” Tim says.
Sea otter Cayucos came to Shedd as an orphaned pup. “She is from the endangered southern sea otter population,” he says. “At the same time that Cayucos is delighting our guests, she’s helping us learn more about her species, which can contribute to wise management decisions for protecting wild sea otters.
“And coral reefs, which are in alarming decline around the world, are benefiting from the experience we’ve gained by culturing corals at Shedd. Our aquarists are applying their expertise to restoration projects in the wild for critically endangered elkhorn coral.”
The sea turtle, fish, otter and coral are among two dozen endangered species you can see throughout Shedd’s galleries and exhibits. They are identified by a red triangle with “Endangered,” “Critically Endangered,” or “Extinct in the Wild” below it.
These categories, and the exacting scientific criteria that define them, were developed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature to assess individual species’ probability of extinction. The more than 36,000 species of plants and animals on the IUCN’s Red List are classified as imperiled (Critically Endangered, Endangered, or Vulnerable categories), not imperiled (Near Threatened or Least Concern), extinct (Extinct or Extinct in the Wild) or Data Deficient.
Ginsu, the 14-foot green sawfish in Wild Reef, and two species of Madagascar’s tiny, toxic mantella frogs, found in the Islands and Lakes gallery, are among Shedd’s critically endangered species. Their wild kin face an extremely high risk of extinction in the immediate future.
In a reverse of fortunes, the redtail sharkminnow, represented in the Rivers gallery, was recently downgraded to critically endangered from extinct in the wild, a happy reassessment based on new data.
Only slightly less imperiled are species ranked as endangered; they face a very high risk of extinction in the near future. In addition to sea turtles and sea otters, Shedd’s endangered roster includes two freshwater species that are also on Illinois’ endangered species list—Blanding’s turtles and spotted turtles.
Conservation efforts in the last decade, including aquarium- and zoo-supported breeding programs for reintroduction, have edged the Grand Cayman blue iguana back to endangered from critically endangered. The cousins of Shedd’s blue iguana can enjoy long-term recovery if enough of their island habitat stays protected.
Dr. Chuck Knapp, Shedd’s vice president of conservation and research and a field biologist who has devoted his life to studying the Cyclura iguanas native to the Bahamas and Caribbean, co-chairs the IUCN Iguana Specialist Group. He and his colleagues are considered the world’s leading authorities on these lizards.
“Shedd is responsible for assessing Cyclura cychlura and two subspecies, C. c. figginsi and C. c. cychlura for the IUCN Red List,” says Chuck. “That’s all based on the fieldwork we’ve been doing for 20 years. We are mandated with ensuring that these animals are on the Red List and that the data is current. Right now I’m in the process of updating the assessments for the iguanas we study.”
He adds that many species on the Red List fall under the Data Deficient category. “We have no idea of their populations. More species are data-deficient than those that we have information for. They may be disappearing before our eyes and we don’t know it.”
That’s why Chuck and his colleagues take their iguana assessments so seriously. “It a lot of work, but it’s so incredibly important to the survival of these species.”
You don’t have to be a scientist to take action to help endangered species. Meg Matthews, manager of conservation communications, says, “There are a lot of choices we can make to protect not only endangered species, but all species.
“Pollution is a major threat to many aquatic animals. At Shedd, we work to keep our local waters healthy by using all-organic gardening methods. You can do the same thing around your home. Bypass the chemical pesticides and fertilizers and use products that won’t send toxins into our waterways when it rains.”
Plastic is another threat, she says. “When plastic trash gets into waterways, it never disappears. It just breaks down into smaller and smaller pieces that wind up in the stomachs of many animals, including endangered sea birds and sea turtles. Minimize your plastic use, and recycle or reuse the plastics products that you need.”
And who says you can’t have fun while you’re doing a good deed for endangered species? Join Shedd for one of our Great Lakes Action Days. You can help restore habitats by cleaning beaches, planting native flora and collecting data for citizen science projects in local wetlands and other key ecosystems.
Endangered Species Day is about hope. “Shedd’s responsibility is to showcase these wonderful animals to let the public know about their plight,” says iguana expert Chuck. “But there are also incredible stories of recovery, based on sound science, effort and the commitment of agencies, organizations and, most of all, individuals.”
See our Facebook album of endangered species at Shedd.
—Karen Furnweger, web editor